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Wei Jingsheng: my life for democracy
by Karin Schmidl and Manfred Kipfelsberger

An interview with China's most prominent democratic activist, covering human rights, political diversity, and the spirituality which sustains this modern-day hero. 

Wei Jingsheng is the most prominent voice of the current democratic movement in China, whose members are often prosecuted for political reasons. Since 1966 the Chinese cultural revolution, whose victims were in the millions, spread its ideology of political purification into the country. At first, in 1950, Wei was an arduous fighter for its ideals but in the following years he realized that peasants and simple people lived in greater poverty and bondage than ever. Later he acted as cofounder of a group of oppositional activists, veiling themselves as a choir to avoid political prosecution.

In the most audacious document of this time, Wei Jingsheng wrote: "If the Chinese vote for modernization, they first must establish democracy and modernize the Chinese social system." This proclamation was the main reason for the Chinese Government to arrest him. The show trial took only four hours to sentence Wei to 15 years in jail.

In 1993 Wei was released, immediately continuing his fight for democracy. Soon afterwards he was arrested again and sentenced to another 15 years with only a half-hour trial.

His 18 years in prison ruined Wei's health. Other prisoners were forced to beat him up regularly. He was treated with chemicals and beaten with an electric baton. He was in solitary confinement for most of the time, put into a dark room for two-and-a-half years, put into a glass cage without any privacy for two years and locked away into a dungeon full of rats and without basic sanitary requirements.

After Jiang Zemin's meeting with Bill Clinton in 1997, and due to coronary heart disease, Wei was released and sent to the United States for treatment. After a short stay in hospital he started to travel and give talks to inform the world about the reality in China. During his round-trip in Europe he gave a public talk in Munich, where Share International had the opportunity for an interview.

Share International: This year, the member states of the European Union refused to promote a China resolution of the UN Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR). What is your opinion of the current situation?

Wei Jingsheng: The human rights violations in China are the worst worldwide. We are demanding the rights for the whole world, not only for China and Tibet. The ruling principle in China is the dictatorship; to stay in power is the motivating factor for keeping the system alive. There is no big difference between Third World dictatorial regimes and China. Communism is a successful fascism. In China there are 500 billionaires, who illegally made their fortune. One thousand million people are living below the minimum living standards as defined by the United Nations. By their decision against a China resolution the mentioned countries preferred to safeguard their economic interest rather than human rights issues. I am opposing extreme capitalism as well as extreme communism. The Western governments are under pressure from economic leaders but there is no direct connection between business and human rights. Without complying with democratic rules in economic matters, a similar scenario to that of the German Nazis is possible; that, as we know, was a drama for the whole world. Only when economic deals are based on democratic principle and action will it be to the advantage of the world. The human rights situation in China hasn't changed, it has become worse. The world must continue to fight for China and Tibet. We want, not confrontation, but dialogue. The decision not to propose a resolution against China has already had its consequences. Worst is the disappointment of the Chinese people believing in democracy. The Western world helps to suppress the Chinese people. Many people in China prefer a peaceful path to democracy, but due to the ongoing suppression they believe that peaceful and non-violent resistance may not be successful.

SI: In your opinion democratization is an essential requirement for economic modernization. Many fear that it might be dangerous, that the democratic process will destabilize China as it did the former Soviet Union. How do you see this?

WJ: It is impossible to say how the country will be after democracy is established, and how the balance of power within the country will be. Not only do the Uigures, Mongols and Tibetans dislike living in a dictatorship but the Han-Chinese do not like it either. It could make sense for Han-Chinese and minorities to live together in one state but only if they so wish. A good example is Europe, where there are many different nations but the trend is towards a political union. The minorities have to decide for themselves what kind of state they prefer.

SI: You have visited some countries in the Western world. What is your impression of democracy in the Western countries?

WJ: I think there is no perfect democracy in the world. Therefore I am studying the existing democracies to avoid making the same mistakes when building up democracy in China.

SI: China is a vast country. Therefore she claims her special path of development. What are your hopes for China in this respect?

WJ: Of course, the path to democracy cannot be the same as in other countries. One reason is that there is no other country in the world the size of China. Secondly, there is no other country with a comparable and continuing cultural tradition. Therefore Chinese democratization will be different from that of other countries and there are many hurdles to take. The Chinese are also just human beings and therefore the Chinese democratic system will not be very different from any other democracy. Of course, we would like to make it better than the democracies in the Western world.

SI: Democracy implies self-determination as well as religious freedom. What do you think about the legitimate concerns of the Tibetans to live a free and self-determined life?

WJ: You are right, of course. Religious self-determination is a part of human rights; it is not separable. Self-determination is not only a question of political practice, it is part of the human rights problem. Because every human being as an individual has the right to choose his religion in freedom, so every nation must have the right to choose its own opportunities.

SI: What are your impressions of the spiritual life of the Tibetans? As an example the Dalai Lama, because of his religious beliefs, demonstrates a non-violent approach based on political dialogue and understanding.

WJ: I personally consider it wise politics that the Dalai Lama is fighting for the Tibetans' right to freedom by respecting non-violence. This is true also for the political movement, which is fighting for democracy in China. At this point in time, while fighting for democracy in China, it would be wrong to promote a conflict between different nations like China and Tibet. This would be an obstacle in our fight for democracy.

SI: A personal question: How could you endure your long imprisonment? What is your inner source of strength?

WJ: My own spiritual source is the conviction that what I am fighting for is good for everyone. This is so important that it is the single source of my strength. In a certain way my conviction is in line with the Dalai Lama's position. We are both fighting for a better future for humanity. It is for this reason that we have a deep understanding of each other and can work together very well. I am convinced of non-violence as well.

SI: So you are building up your strength mostly from your convictions?

WJ: The support from the people is also very important. On this point I agree with the followers of Buddha. We recognize the weaknesses of man and we believe that man is not perfect, but we must make efforts to improve him.

From the June 1998 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005